Professor Keith Mayes publishes the first scholarly book connecting Kwanzaa and the Black Power movement.
For most of us, the holidays we celebrate derive from our religious traditions, national history, or a specific connection to our culture or ethnicity. In some cases, it's a combination of two or more of those--think Italian-American devotion to Columbus Day, or the Swedish celebration of Saint Lucia. Rarely do we think of holidays being a response to mainstream culture. Kwanzaa, the seven-day celebration of "First Fruits," is just such a holiday.
Professor Keith Mayes of the Department of African American Studies has been making a name for himself in academic circles for his study of African American holidays. With the publication of his book "Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition," his research is reaching a wider audience. In fact, it's the first scholarly book to look at black holiday traditions as part of a greater cultural movement.
Kwanzaa is the best known and most widely celebrated holiday in a long line of black holidays that started with the slave holidays and freedoms holidays that American slaves celebrated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. January 1, for example, was not celebrated as New Year's Day by 19th century slaves; they were celebrating the anniversary of the ban on the American slave trade that went into effect that day in 1808, and later the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth is still celebrated in honor of the day in 1865, June 19, that slaves in east Texas received word that they had been freed.
The Black Power movement of the 1960s further influenced how black people expressed their experiences, creativity, and aesthetic within the larger national context.
"We see the evidence of Black Power's influence in the ways in which blacks began to reflect styles--they didn't have to conform to inventions of style, or white styles," says Mayes. With the corresponding rise of the Black Arts movement and Pan-Africanism, African Americans decided they had their own culture and didn't need to reflect the tastes and traditions of the white majority any longer.
A holiday of their own
This rise in cultural identity led to another movement Mayes calls "calendar politics."
In taking their protests to calendars, African Americans addressed their grievances by using established holidays to showcase their own culture. And so Ron Karenga, then a Black Nationalist, created Kwanzaa. As with other Black holidays created in the 1960s, Kwanzaa was meant to reflect the values and culture of African American people during a recognized mainstream holiday period, so Karenga determined it should be celebrated starting the day after Christmas. The name Kwanzaa is borrowed from the Swahili phrase for "first fruits," and this use of an African language not only in the name of the holiday but also in the names of its seven principles (umoja or unity, ujima or collective work and responsibility, kuumba or creativity, etc.) is due to the holiday's Pan-Africanism roots.
"This is Black Power in its most lasting form," says Mayes. "It's seen in the culture. People decided 'we'll create Black stuff,' and as part of this cultural thrust people could define what it means to be black, point to who they are. Reclaim their African-ness."
Kwanzaa has outlived the movement, Mayes says, because of its ability to inspire people. In its earliest years, Kwanzaa was a political statement, but by the 1970s non-political blacks were celebrating it too, and it began to spread among people who weren't into the Black Power movement.
Black holidays in the past survived only if their practitioners kept them going and spread them around. Juneteenth came north with blacks from Texas and is still celebrated to this day throughout the country. Black Solidarity Day, Umojo Karamu ("Unity Feast," an alternative to Thanksgiving), and Black Love Day (Mayes's favorite, observed on February 13) have not enjoyed the same widespread recognition.
The future of Kwanzaa could go either way, according to Mayes. By his estimates, 500,000 to 1 million people in the United States celebrate Kwanzaa each year. "We're in the second and third generations of people sharing and celebrating with their families," he says. The public observances sponsored by schools and museums in larger cities helps establish Kwanzaa in the mainstream--an ironic twist, given Kwanzaa's Black Nationalist roots. Like any celebration, people need to keep sharing it in order for it to grow and survive.
When asked if he's an advocate for Kwanzaa or an impartial social scientist, Mayes laughs as he says, "I would say 75 percent of me is an observer, a student of the movement. And the other 25 percent of me thinks this is a good thing."
Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition is available from Routledge Press.